A part-time primary school teacher and entrepreneur from Essex has shared how the spirit of her local community and getting on Instagram helped get her business back on track.
Heather Syrett, 28 and from Leigh-on-Sea, runs Leigh Calligraphy which specialises in calligraphy design and workshops.
Her passion for the craft started in 2017, when she wanted to design her own wedding invitations, signage and table decor, and so taught herself the art of calligraphy using videos and books.
Heather Syrett runs Leigh Calligraphy, which specialises in calligraphy design and workshops
She soon became hooked and set up her own classes to teach others, started exhibiting at arts and crafts festivals and designing stationery for weddings.
After two successful years and ever-increasing demand, Heather decided to take the leap and go part-time at the school she worked at in order to focus more on the business at the end of 2019.
However, just months later, the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide lockdown hit and meant her two biggest sources of income – workshops and weddings – were put on hold.
‘The coronavirus had a huge impact on my business. I had to cancel all the workshops, most of which were sold out, and so I had to give a lot of refunds,’ she says.
‘They are my main income from the business, and I earn around £1,000 per month from them, so being unable to book dates for later in the year was really detrimental.
‘Luckily, most attendees opted to save their ticket for a future workshop but not knowing when I was safely going to be able to host them again was a weight on my shoulders.
Before coronavirus, Heather ran two-hour calligraphy workshops which often sold out
‘On top of this, I had to hit pause on all of my wedding orders – which includes invitations, place cards, table plans welcome signs – which is my second biggest income, particularly in the spring and summer months.’
This additional blow came after specific Government rules which banned large weddings and led to many being postponed or cancelled altogether.
In the latest update, the Government said from 28 September, only 15 people, including the couple, can ‘attend a marriage or civil partnership, where this can be safely accommodated with social distancing in a Covid-19 venue’.
Heather also collaborates with others in the wedding industry to put together styled shoots to give ideas to those looking for inspiration for their big day, but this has also come to a halt due to Covid.
Falling through the Covid support net
Heather is one of those who slipped through the net of government income support schemes.
She had recently cut her hours as a full-time teacher and was unable to take advantage of any of the Government small business support schemes.
Heather says: ‘Leigh Calligraphy had grown so much over the first two years so I decided to reduce my teaching to three days a week in September 2019, just a few months before Covid-19 hit.
‘I was ineligible for any grant or government support because during the first two years of self-assessment for my business, my business income was less than 50 per cent of my overall income as I was teaching full-time.’
While her overall income fell significantly when the nationwide lockdown was imposed in March, Heather said she knows she is lucky as she was still receiving her teaching salary and her husband was still working and so the mortgage and other household bills were still covered.
She adds: ‘It’s a shame though, that I seem to have fallen through a support gap having only just reduced my hours at school and I feel almost punished for taking a leap and putting more time into working for myself.’
Instagram: a supportive hub for SMEs
Leigh-on-sea is a close-knit town, says Heather, and it boasts a network of small businesses and independent shops, meaning she was able to keep going and keep growing, after an initial setback.
‘I am so lucky to have such a supportive community who already love to shop small.
‘We have some fantastic local pop-up craft markets where I have showcased my work over the years so people already know me and follow me on social media.’
Prior to lockdown, Heather often showcased her work at craft fairs and markets across Essex
Instagram has been an important tool throughout Heather’s entrepreneurial journey as it started off as a platform to showcase her new hobby before becoming a marketplace for customers to buy products and book workshops.
During lockdown, when the nation found themselves at home and with nothing to do, some took up baking bread, crocheting and other weird and wonderful skills, while others turned to calligraphy.
Heather adds: ‘There has been a huge drive to support local, small businesses with lots of people wanting to learn new skills at home with more spare time inside.
‘I therefore set up a pre-recorded online workshop where people would be sent their calligraphy beginners kit and worksheets in the post, then watch the online video in their own time.
‘They have lifetime access to the video so they can go back and practise whenever they like. I had a fair amount of sign-ups which was a great way for me to still make a small income.
‘But I wouldn’t have been able to market any of this without social media and followers sharing my page. Instagram has been a great supportive hub for small businesses during lockdown.’
Personal touches and a positive outlook
The platform will also be pivotal for Heather to showcase her new products, which she has used her own time at home to develop.
She spent much of lockdown improving and learning new skills, as well as designing new wedding stationery, greetings cards, and Christmas products, the latter of which she hopes will help make up some of her losses when Christmas season approaches.
Heather spent her lockdown learning how to engrave items such as fragrance bottles
‘Customers not being able to go out to shop at the start of lockdown, meant they turned to small businesses like mine for thoughtful birthday and anniversary gifts,’ she adds. ‘I was lucky to get some commissions for bespoke birthday cards and personalised calligraphy gifts.
‘This local support instantly gave me the confidence to continue to grow and develop my product range and so my time at home was not wasted worrying about what might happen.’
Heather also spent some of her lockdown learning how to do free-hand electric calligraphy engraving onto items such as champagne and fragrance bottles.
She said: ‘This is already opening doors to collaborating with some exciting big companies, so this “time out” should pay off in the future.’
‘My personalised Christmas range is already available on my website and Not On The High Street and I have lots of new and exciting products this year.
‘Orders are already coming in for Christmas gifts as I think people need something to look forward to after such a horrible year.’
Though the year has undoubtedly been tough – as it has been for everyone across the world, and for different reasons – Heather has remained positive and hopeful that things will return to ‘normal’ eventually.
Leigh Calligraphy’s personalised gifts are now available to buy on Not On The High Street
She says: ‘The unknown has not been easy and it has been terrible timing in terms of the stage my business is at and not being able to get any financial government support but I am by no means the worst affected.
‘I am keeping positive that things will be back to how they once were and people will be able to enjoy birthdays, weddings and other events with their loved ones again soon.’